Ligers may be beautiful and unique, but would you ever find them in the wild?
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is home to three ligers who have been rescued from pseudo facilities across the country. Unfortunately, ligers only exist because of people. They are man-made animals bred for the sole purpose of being used in the entertainment industry. Lions and tigers do not co-exist together in the wild. Therefore, they would not reproduce in nature. But, there is one exception to this geographical isolation. In the Gir National Forest in India, there is a small population of Asiatic lions. However, because lions and tigers have different social structures and physical appearances, the chances of accepting the other as a mate are low. Hybridization does occur naturally in some animals, but only when it is advantageous for those animals to do so. Lion and tiger populations are not so low to cause this behavior.
For pseudo facilities to create hybrids like ligers, the two separate species become housed in the same enclosure with no other option. When forced together, the offspring can have multiple health and genetic issues due to their parentage. Ligers have the potential to suffer from gigantism, often leading to organ failure and other health concerns.
Gigantism can occur because male lions have a growth gene that enables their cubs to be bigger, ensuring their offspring will out-compete other cubs of the same litter. The lioness’s genes will stop the cubs from getting too large, making sure they all have a chance at survival. Female tigers will typically only mate with one male, so the cubs from that litter will not need to compete with one another to survive. Meaning, that growth genes, preventative or otherwise, do not occur in tigers. When a male lion breeds with a female tiger, her genes do not know how to stop the growth of the cubs, causing the offspring to continue growing.
Big cat hybrids are not real species, but why?
For animals to be a species, they need to give birth to successful offspring, who can reproduce themselves. For big cat hybrids, this will not happen as male ligers are sterile, and females are not always able to reproduce. To create ti-ligers, li-ligers, and other hybrids-of-hybrids, facilities breed male tigers with female ligers and vice versa. TCWR is home to one ti-liger named Lakota, who was rescued from a pseudo facility. Because of their genetics, ti-ligers can be as large as ligers.
Because big cat hybrids are not considered real species, they serve no purpose for conservation efforts. They exist purely for human entertainment, as a “WOW” factor. To help stop the breeding of hybrids, research before you go. If any facility promotes hybrids by breeding and allowing interactions with them, they are NOT a real facility. True sanctuaries will never breed. Zoos accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) will breed pure species through their Species Survival Plans, but they will not produce hybrids. Education is vital to help stop the abuse and neglect that wildlife face every day. You can be their voice and be the change for their future.